B2L Q&A with Freedom Foods' Sonja Kukuljan

Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet at work can be tough. Busy schedules could mean your grab the closest thing on hand and wolf it down at your desk or you might snack on junk food out of boredom or stress. If you're trapped in a cycle of take out lunches, trips to the lolly jar or functioning on caffeine, read on - Sonja Kukuljan, dietician at Freedom Foods Group gives us the lowdown on maintaining balance alongside your full time job with fresh, nutrient dense foods.

What role does diet play in our day to day performance?

A well balanced diet includes fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of whole grain rich foods (forget processed, highly refined white flours) and legumes, some unsweetened/natural dairy foods and meat/fish or meat alternative. Eating a well-balanced diet means that we will get enough of the nutrients essential for good health and it also helps us to reduce our risk of chronic health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity. Something most of us don’t know is that the trick to eating a well-balanced diet is as much about what we don’t eat, as it is about what we do eat. By choosing fresh, nutrient dense foods, we bump out the more refined, less nutritious foods such as biscuits, chocolate bars, deep fried fish and chips and burgers/chicken/pizza from fast food chain outlets. This alone boosts our performance capacity and can also help stop you feeling sluggish.

Once we cut out a lot of the highly processed snack and fast foods and get much more of the fresh foods we really need, we start to feel better, look better, enjoy life more and dare I say it, we may even live longer and live stronger. Here, it’s important to remember that we eat whole foods and not simply nutrients like fat, carbohydrate or protein. Choosing to eat a food or not based on whether it’s high in carbohydrate, fat or protein alone is overly simplistic and fundamentally flawed. Rather, we should think about the type (fresh versus highly processed) and amount (smaller versus too large) of the food we have REGULARLY that really matters to our day-to-day wellbeing and performance. We can mix good, fresh food up in so many different ways, to achieve an end result of a good, healthy diet that will deliver health and wellbeing benefits.

An example that is receiving lots of attention in both scientific and popular circles right now, is the effect healthy carbohydrates have on the gut microbiota, gut health and the critical role this plays on general health. In fact, the gut is being referred to as our ‘second brain’. Here, healthy carbohydrate rich foods, like the whole grains and legumes found in unrefined breakfast offerings, ripe bananas, cashews and three bean mix salad, escape digestion in the small intestine in humans, make their way to our large intestine where the good gut bacteria ferment them and produce healthy knock on effects to gut health. Over time, these carbohydrates (referred to Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates or MACs in science circles) help to establish a healthier gut bacteria profile. But the key is diversity in MAC delivery to the large intestine, so including many different whole grain and fresh vegetables sources amongst other whole, fresh foods is important. Here, the Freedom Foods Barley+ range is a particular standout. Not only does the barley in Barley+ have twice as much total fibre compared to other typically consumed grains like wheat, it has much more of the MACs as well, so makes it easier to get on the road to improving gut health outcomes.

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Do you have any tips on how full time workers can maintain a healthy diet?

Working full time can man it is a bit of a challenge to eat well, but being prepared is the key.

The first thing is to start with a good, whole grain rich breakfast, which includes a little fresh fruit and perhaps a tablespoon or 2 of fresh, natural yoghurt. This is easy, as we only need to buy a box of Barley+ from the health food aisle in Coles, some good quality yoghurt and have some firm bananas or other fresh fruit on hand.

The next thing to do is learn where you can get a healthy salad or soup for lunch nearby work, or a sandwich bar that uses good quality, whole grain bread that is not cut too thickly. Otherwise, make sure you have some good tins of product available to mix up your own salad quickly. Here, some tinned tuna, salmon, sardines or even mackerel are handy, which can easily mix into a salad together using tinned corn, chick peas, beetroot, three bean mix etc. Boiling a few eggs earlier in the week to take to work to pop into salads is another winner. Keeping a little olive oil and good quality balsamic vinegar on your desk can make it really easy to dial up the flavours of such salads.

For dinners, make sure you have one or two easy to follow cook books on hand, and choose some recipes that use lots of vegetables and smaller amounts of meat. Check out Dr Jo’s newest book Get Lean, Stay Lean - The 6-step lifestyle change program for a happier, healthier body, for life as an example of recipes that use lots of vegetables. Alternatively, cook tuna/salmon one night, a little chicken/red mean another night, add an easy salad and for the other nights, cook up a quick pasta with vegetables or some stir-fry with quinoa and you’re on your way. Make sure you buy fresh ingredients on the weekend and if you can manage to, cook dinner 4 out of 5 times during the week.

Remember, being prepared to eat well is the most reliable way to starting to eat well.

What about office friendly snacks?

My advice is to ensure carrots, celery, crunchy apples etc., which can be teamed with some good hummus or tzatziki dip (try making your own if you have time) are readily on hand. Keep them at home or at the office and prepare them quickly as needed. These keep well in a little wrap, until needed later in the day. Dips can be decanted into small containers (a bit like school kids take small portions of food to school). Keep some good quality muesli bars like the Barley+ Bars at work and at home. Similarly, small amounts of crunchy, fresh nuts, small serves of fresh yoghurt with seeds and fruit, some good quality cheese from which a small section can be cut and teamed with some fresh grapes or passion fruit, all make great snacks.

Why did you decide to work with Freedom Foods?

Freedom Foods is committed to Making Food Better. As a dietitian who has been involved in researching the benefits of good food and physical activity on health outcomes across the lifespan, and a mum who wants to make sure children have access to good, wholesome food, I am also committed to Making Food Better. Together, we are working very hard to deliver on our mission. It really is the perfect fit for me.  

Which food products can you not live without?

 For me, the importance of breakfast is my key driver. Barley+ Porridge and Muesli are amongst my must have foods. Then, there is 3 bean mix, tinned and fresh tuna, sardines and salmon, lentils, barley for soups and barley risotto, rocket lettuce and pumpkins, artichoke hearts and above all, the gorgeous taste of fennel makes it a must have when it is in season. Tomatoes, garlic and good quality pasta also feature highly, with Cobram extra virgin olive oil and the best balsamic vinegar that I can afford.



Finally what’s the best piece of nutritional advice you can give?

Eat FRESH FOOD and choose minimally processed grain rich foods. The other really important part of this advice is “don’t eat too much” of anything. One to 2 serves of fruit per day is terrifically good for us, but fruit juice can easily condense much more fruit in, which makes it easy to have too much. So, eat fresh fruit, not fruit juice. Eating lots of other vegetable plant foods is also amongst the best advice available and here, variety is the key. Include as many different vegetables as possible, which is easier when we have some good, easy to follow, vegetable rich recipes on hand (e.g. spaghetti primavera or minestrone soup).


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